The International Steam Pages

A Day in the Life, 2006…
(of a couple of stationary steam engine gricers)

It’s 01.00 and my back is killing me. Probably because I’m sleeping in the cold open air with just a thin mat between me and the teak bench. My God, where the hell am I? Oh yes, somewhere between Yangon and Pyay. All because our guide Han moved heaven and earth for at least four hours to persuade sundry policemen, guest house owners and other scumbags to let us stay officially in this small Burmese town. And, unusually, failed. Made worse by the fact that we were forced to spend last night in a shoe box in Bago because one of our friends had taken our reserved hotel room before we arrived. Never mind he thought he had a good reason, he could at least have told me and spared me the embarrassment of dressing down the hotel staff for ‘bumping’ a long standing customer. Unfortunately he has yet to learn what seems to happen to many people who cross my path and in due course he will probably suffer retribution, horribly, albeit not at my hands.... To make matters even worse the car is ‘broken’ and the so-called driver - he thinks the car is 2 metres wider than it is and is incapable of seeing more than 50 metres down the road ahead through his pebble glasses - will spend the day trying to fix it and we have to use public transport… Shit, it doesn’t get much worse than this in Burma (except maybe on the Irrawaddy boats).

I have to ask Yuehong to squeeze up a bit in the back seat of the car so I can let down the front passenger seat and try to have a few hours’ sleep as the overnight traffic rumbles past. By 06.00 the tea stalls around us are coming alive and at 06.30 it’s the shortest of walks across the road for breakfast. After a quick tea, bread and beans I feel at least 50% human again. Just think of the money we have saved! We don’t have to wait long for our first bus and half an hour later we are dropped off at the required junction. Take care! This bus started life a long time ago in Japan where they drive on the left. Here they drive on the right and you get on and off the bus in the middle of the road, the bus passenger casualties would be horrendous if they had any real traffic. With all the camera gear, not to mention the laptops we can’t leave in the car, we need three trishaws. It’s only a couple of miles to town down the potholed road…. When we get to the railway station, there’s a train full of passengers sitting patiently in the loop. They are going nowhere, their engine, one of Myanmar’s finest 3 bogie diesels, is sitting next to them with at least half its wheels sitting in the dirt.

07.30 and as we approach the first smoking chimney; a motorbike draws alongside, two men are talking to Han as we go. Of course, it’s the police. At least this time they are actually very friendly and spend the next hour or so enjoying themselves coming round the mills with us. This mill has a rather nice Marshall (12” or so as usual), it's one of the older ones with its number cast on a brass plate behind the regulator, with full patent governor set up. But not worth both of us shooting it. 

So I dash over to the derelict mill behind the station, it’s all locked up, but inside is the unmistakable shape of another Marshall 12”, no doubt a quality product, but these guys sure got rich in the days of the Raj. 08.00, it’s still quite cool and Yuehong is busy shooting so I shoulder up my share of the bags and walk over to the second working mill a couple of hundred metres away. As always everyone is friendly and the fact that Han is not with me actually makes it quicker to get in. The great thing about this kind of bash is the amazing ups and downs you experience. After last night's total down, we are about to have this morning's high. Wow! This is the real thing, an ancient Alexander Young badged tandem compound, with condenser, in full stride and in really good lighting conditions with minimal dust. These days, I am limited to the time I can spend in dusty mills because otherwise it sets off dreadful coughing the next day… Yuehong turns up and gives me a great smile when I tell her what is here. I take the stills and then spend more than half an hour drooling and taking as much video as possible.

It’s now heading up for 09.00 and it’s time for me to check out the next working mill just north. Oh dear, yet another Marshall 12” and this one is in dirty and disgusting condition. Two stills for me and a couple of video clips for Yuehong will suffice. Back into more trishaws, mine needs air in the front tyre and Han and Yuehong sail off ahead. On the way, I see that the train is still in the station, they are trying to power the loco back on the track as I go past but all I can hear is splintering timber followed by a long silence. Maybe they are all still there..... I stop at a non-operating mill which has a small unidentifiable engine, a more modern version of the one we saw a day ago. But at least there is some light this time, not like before when it was like hell with the lights turned off. 

I catch up with the other two at another non-operational mill, the boiler is said to be poorly. It’s ‘only’ a Tangye E size, these are beautiful small engines and over a hundred years’ old for certain (you can see a slightly larger working one in Return to Dakhondaing). By 10.00 we are back at the junction and this time it’s the army who want to interrogate Han…. On to the bus heading north towards where the car is hopefully under repair by now. Burma must be the only country in the world to use teak trees to line its roads. We get off at a small junction and jump into trishaws. Since the fare is only 100 Kyat per person (U$0.10), it can’t be that far to the mill. This one is small, dark, dusty and oily, you can barely see the engine. Opening the back door gives us a little more light on one side. It’s old, definitely, and it’s unlike anything we have seen before. I go round the engine probing with my Swiss army knife, hoping to find some kind of plate or casting. With every step my made-in-China trainers are simultaneously tearing themselves apart and trying their best to glue themselves to the floor of the mill. Eventually I strike lucky on the darker side of the engine and start to scrape. Fortunately the staff realise what is needed and pitch in. Like an old fashioned striptease, all is slowly revealed – “A. Siddall maker Sowerby Bridge” – needless to say not a name that rings any bells at all. By now my lungs are screaming at me and I head for the mill entrance where Han is waiting. The owner is a sprightly 80 year old, (how on earth can he flourish in such an environment, he must have a young wife?), he clearly remembers the engine coming to the mill just after World War II and even better he says that the agents were Cowies which sort of solves a mystery as to their status, but at the same time begs a lot more questions – Cowie plates are quite common and now we have to assign ‘their’ engines…. Definitely after the exhilaration of the morning’s discoveries it will be downhill all the way now as we start to feel the effects of the last two nights' discomfort. Yuehong especially is flagging, not surprising really because she is taking most of the video. The cast name below was actually under the grime of the vertical part of the engine's frame in the first picture....

It’s a pleasant walk back because the bags are piled high on a trishaw. Mercifully this road junction is too small to have any official presence, a bus rolls up in no time and just after 11.00 we hit our fifth working mill of the day. More dust and it’s a Marshall 12” again; sensibly Yuehong sits this one out and I spend as little time as possible making a basic photographic record, the picture below says it all. But the owner is friendly and he tells us that the mill in the town 2 miles away is working today and that it also has a Marshall! We have to check it out.

Once again trishaws are summoned and a return fare negotiated as we shouldn’t be too long. In this area, many of the steam mills are near the station and often have ornate chimneys, but not this one. The owner runs a ‘tight ship’ and this is not your average Marshall. For a start it is ‘modern’ with piston valves and appears to have been shortened at some stage, because the worksplate is partly obscured, 93352 is one of the highest numbers we have seen here. Consequently it runs at a speed which is quite beyond my counting ability but is probably about 150 rpm. Thank goodness it is isolated from the main mill so the dust levels are almost healthy. 

Sitting in  a room at the back is an incomplete duplex pump, the plate "The Moorlands Engineering Company Limited, Leek, Staffs, England, Number 2856" represents another 'find'. Round the front the owner produces a welcome bottle of cold drinking water, but the immigration officials have arrived. The only qualification for this department is to fail the intelligence tests for the police and army… Thank God we are travelling with Han so I have to restrain myself for his sake. In this case a few random letters and numbers scribbled on a piece of paper are enough to satisfy them, often it takes a lot longer. It’s nearly 13.00 and by now Han can wait no longer so we despatch him for his substantial lunch while I briefly investigate a closed mill. Quite why the pigs are pleased to see me I can only guess, but peering inside there seems to be a Marshall of some kind and outside there is a duplex pump – we have seen quite a few of these creatures and most appear to be Worthingtons of some kind (USA - like this - or UK branches). 

Along the way, one half of me says the country must be making progress because many schools pronounce themselves to be 'e-learning centres'; the other half wonders how you can learn to use a computer (assuming it is serviceable) when there is no electricity during school hours. I would have to hesitate before describing our lunch spot as a restaurant; on the grounds that while it did at least have a roof of some kind, the floor was bare earth into which had soaked the remains of several thousand meals. On the other hand the food was perfectly palatable and half the bill of under U$3 was for my cold beer and they served up some very decent traditional British style potato crisps too.

“It’s not far to go.” says Han so we jump on to the back of a pick-up for the next stretch. This mill was working this morning but the owner has shut it down for the afternoon as he has had a good friend visiting and he didn’t want him getting dusty! A table and chairs appear from nowhere as does yet another bottle of cold water. Out of the fridge come four of the tastiest oranges sampled on the trip. Inside this very different kind of  mill, the staff are sweeping up as I try to snap a few digital stills – a non-working mill gives better results as the camera’s built-in software always struggles with either dust or steam. We can (and do) come back here tomorrow to see their 12” Tangye at work but right now it’s time to wander down the road for what proves to be our last mill of the day (6 working mills, 6 non-working mills, not too bad). They too have a 12” Tangye, they too say they will work ‘tomorrow’ but in the event they mean some time ‘soon’. They also have an out of use Tangye E size but more interestingly a reconditioned Hosain Hamadanee engine ready to be installed. These people were agents in Rangoon - their name appears quite frequently, even cast like this on what are obviously standard Tangye engines without any overt Tangye  markings. 

I have heard it said that Tangye claimed to have had no agents, if so they were being economical with the truth as Jessops, Holden and Cowie, for a start, all supplied their engines here too. More significantly as this engine is very clean, Yuehong spots where Tangye have engraved their number. Of course, this is a bit late given we have seen more than 50 similar machines so far in the country and we subsequently find that some earlier machines turn out not to have numbers in the corresponding place! And not really a huge amount of use anyway in our research project given there is no known Tangye expert and their archives are piled high and unwanted in a warehouse in Birmingham where the local authority is no doubt praying for a fire to relieve them of their responsibility.

Now it’s after 15.00 and time to go and look for the car. The agreed rendezvous is a popular watering hole on the north side of town which does have a concrete floor and even better a supply of cold draught beer, not to mention a stand up urinal of sorts. The first jar barely touches the side and then it strikes us there is no sign of car or driver – he is supposed to have been to Pyay and back on the bus (armed with our money) to find the necessary spare part. All our clean clothes are in the car and what we are wearing would undoubtedly stand up and walk away if given the chance to do so after two days of rice mill bashing. Over the second jar we hatch plan B; if necessary, Yuehong and I will take a bus to Pyay at dusk and Han will then be able to stay locally, locate the car and wait for us to get back tomorrow morning. The jar is now almost empty and Han vanishes to the phone to ring around the local workshops to see if anyone has seen the car (how he found the numbers I have no idea, Yellow Pages have yet to reach these parts). Local phones do seem to work quite well now, but it does seem to take forever to put a long distance phone call through, no doubt capacity is limited by the number of ‘monitors’ available….

Eventually at the fourth location he is successful and the best estimate for departure is given as some time after 19.00. A third portion of liquid anaesthetic is ordered, it does its job well and I think I spent the rest of the evening asleep until we got tipped out of the car in Pyay at 21.30. The Smile Hotel is well named, the staff are helpful and the interior is familiar, pure ‘made in China’ which means tired but still just about functioning. Han is so exhausted that he can only watch the end of the first football match of the day, meanwhile we have to set up a host of batteries to recharge. The plumbing is definitely of the Chinese WYSIWYG kind but it works; the colour of the water afterwards is the same as the Irrawaddy River which flows past the city. Our bed is a blessed relief, lights and brain go out simultaneously. Tomorrow is bound to bring more ups and downs and we have have only another two weeks to go….

P.S. As it happens, next day, we found working a 118 year old Davey Paxman, an ancient Tangye which had obviously once been a compound, a black grease begrimed engine which when partly cleaned revealed itself as coming from the Oil Well Supply Company, Pittsburgh, USA and a 16” monster of great vintage whose cylinder at least looked Marshallish. That was the good news, the bad news was that our moronic driver took himself off back to the workshop unannounced after lunch. The consequent two hour delay meant we could not quite complete our research here and we had to spend an extra day in Pyay. Driver and car were duly sent back in disgrace to Bago less a substantial imposed discount on the hire cost. Fortunately, I would rate Pyay alongside Moulmein as one of the most attractive of Burma’s cities. We reverted to public transport for the next day and promptly fell in love at first sight, but that's a story for another time.

These are the individual pages from the 2006 trip:

Read more about our travels in:

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson